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Animal bites and scratches

The mouths and claws of all animals and humans carry bacteria and viruses which can cause infection in the flesh around the bite. If untreated, infection may spread into the bloodstream.

If bites or scratches penetrate deeply, tetanus may develop.

Rabies and Australian bat lyssavirus

Classical rabies occurs in most parts of the world (but not in Australia). Overseas, bats and many land dwelling animals, especially dogs, may transmit rabies. Bats in Australia may harbor Australian bat lyssavirus, which is very similar to rabies virus. Rabies is almost always fatal.

Only people who are immunised with rabies vaccine should approach or handle bats.

If you are scratched or bitten by an animal overseas or by a bat, in Australia or overseas, you should clean the wound immediately and thoroughly with soap and water, apply antiseptic (such as iodine based antiseptic) and contact a doctor immediately for further assessment.

Fish and other marine organisms

Scratches from fish and other marine organisms such as coral can cause unusual infections. If an injury caused by fish or a wound contaminated by sea, pond or aquarium water becomes infected, it is important to see your doctor for treatment and explain how the injury occurred.

Treatment

All animal scratches and bites should be washed immediately and thoroughly with soap and water, then apply antiseptic (such as iodine based antiseptic).

When to see medical advice

The following wounds should be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible:

  • deep puncture wounds
  • extensive superficial injuries
  • all but superficial injuries to sensitive areas such as hands, face and genitals
  • all injuries caused by bats as treatment to minimise the chance of rabies may be needed
  • animal bites or scratches sustained overseas as treatment to minimise the chance of rabies may be needed
  • any animal bite or scratch if you have not been vaccinated for tetanus.

Prevention

To reduce the chances of illness from animal bites or scratches:

  • sick or injured animals should be treated promptly
  • people who have professional contact with bats should have a current immunisation against rabies. Other people should avoid close contact.
  • ensure you and your children are immunised against tetanus.

Take steps to minimise the chance of bites and scratches from land animals, particularly whilst overseas:

  • pets should always be adequately restrained
  • in Australia, children approaching domestic and wild animals should be supervised
  • whilst overseas, do not allow children to feed, pat or play with animals
  • animals should not be disturbed while they are eating
  • whilst overseas, do not carry food, and do not feed or pat monkeys and other animals even in popular tourist destinations
  • whilst overseas, do not focus attention on animals carrying their young.

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